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Transformation of the humanities and social sciences the focus of the Federation’s annual meeting

How Congress can become more interdisciplinary and welcoming to young scholars was one of the topics.

BY NATALIE SAMSON | APR 02 2014

It seems every week brings a new batch of articles and op-eds either preaching or questioning the value of liberal arts education. We’re only half-way through this week and already The Globe and Mail has published both a defense of the liberal arts and a take-down of an entire field of humanistic study. Innovations in digital technology, an uncertain job market and a trend towards thinking of higher education in economic terms have put pressure on the humanities and social sciences to prove their continued relevance. It’s a climate the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences chose to meet head-on at its annual meeting last Friday.

Federation staff, board members, association representatives and members of Canada’s academic community gathered at McGill University’s Faculty Club in Montreal to talk about “Transformations,” this year’s theme for the meeting.

Panels addressing Big Data, online learning and MOOCs solidified the federation’s commitment to getting with – and staying with – the increasingly digitized times, but nowhere was the organization’s commitment to change more obvious than in talks about the future of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (taking place May 24 to 30 at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.).

Federation executive director Jean-Marc Mangin moderated a workshop that kick-started the review of Congress’s structure and identity. “What should Congress be when it grows up?” he asked the small breakout group. Affordable, accommodating and integrated, the answer seems so far.

Judging from the feedback, the most pressing concern for delegates is the cost and the complicated fee structure — attendees pay separate association conference fees and association membership fees upon registering. Mr. Mangin noted that association fees range from $20 to $400, depending on the association, with the average landing around $50. A representative from the Environmental Studies Association of Canada told the group his organization’s student members are less and less interested in attending because the associated costs are going up as funding for travel and conference participation goes down.

In response, attendees suggested that in the future, Congress might offer a one-day fee or visitor pass in order to encourage emerging scholars, practitioners and non-members to participate and present. Mr. Mangin said it would also be worth looking into a free day-pass for practitioners and possibly charging a single attendance fee for all delegates.

Another point that generated a lot of discussion was the cost of hosting the event. One audience member pointed out that in the past few years, the price tag has jumped from $300,000 to $1 million for the host university, effectively squeezing out smaller institutions. While the actual cost is closer to $800,000, said Mr. Mangin, “we use $1 million as a [financial] expectation in order to hit home that hosting Congress is a significant investment. You can’t do Congress on the cheap.”

He countered the suggestion that smaller schools can’t afford it by pointing out that the federation is seriously considering a bid from the University of Regina for Congress 2018 (the University of Calgary will host in 2016 and Ryerson University in 2017).

Mr. Mangin also said the federation is actively tackling the problem of “brand awareness” for the larger community of academics, since Congress is not well-known outside humanities and social sciences faculties, with academics in Quebec most notably in the dark. There was some argument as to whether the name should maintain a stately feel or project a more welcoming environment, but in the end the only suggested alternative name that came about was “Agora.”

Questions arose about Congress’s lack of interdisciplinarity and international participation. Right now, about five to eight percent of conference delegates come from abroad, Mr. Mangin said. “Is this sufficient in a globalized research community?”

A representative from the Canadian Association of Theatre Research said they had achieved good attendance numbers by blending seminars and paper panels. With this model they post seminar papers to a website before Congress to generate discussion around the topics. The process has encouraged people who might not have otherwise attended Congress – including international academics – to join. A member of the Canadian Asian Studies Association said that interest has grown since they introduced a pre-Congress for grad students, cultural performances and food tastings, and a fund-matching program that sees the association working with embassies to bring in intellectuals from abroad. The discussion revealed how separate each association is, even though they all meet at the same place during a 10-day period.

Problems with the PhD programs

Later in the afternoon, talk turned to PhD education. A panel made up of Leigh Yetter and Paul Yachnin of McGill, Kathryn Muller, a PhD graduate from Queen’s University, and University of Michigan’s Sidonie Smith discussed the findings of the “White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities,” (PDF) published last December by McGill’s Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas. The study found that 50 percent of PhD students in the humanities leave the program before graduating. Of those that stick it out for the six to seven years it takes to complete, only 20 to 30 percent find full-time work in academia.

The panel posited that the problem isn’t so much the academic job market as it is the “institutional culture” and the programs themselves. Dr. Muller said that PhD programs should better serve those graduates, like her, who won’t pursue work as a faculty member post-PhD. She suggested early access to career counselling and mentorships, training on building a CV, programs that highlight the discipline’s transferable skills and offering relevant work opportunities outside the academy. For those who plan to stay in higher education, Dr. Smith recommended preparing PhD students for digital scholarship and communications, emerging peer review models, online teaching, writing for multiple audiences, and academic leadership. According to the panel, the key to transforming PhD education is flexibility – flexibility regarding the time for completion, dissertation options, promoted career paths, and admissions criteria.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Chad Gaffield, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, said in his address to the group. “The 21st century will be distinguished as when we took seriously the challenge of understanding human thought and behaviour for making a better world.” As such, he said, the humanities and social sciences have important roles to play in society as technology fundamentally changes our world.

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